Snoopy is officially out of the bag.
In a move that lifts the lid on the worst-kept secret in Triangle commercial real estate, Highwoods Properties CEO Ed Fritsch, speaking at the Cary Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet Wednesday evening, confirmed that his company will invest about $110 million building a headquarters for the insurance giant MetLife.
Details of the project, to be built on a 40-acre site fronting Lake Crabtree, have emerged in recent months as Highwoods filed site plans with the town of Cary. MetLife is expected to employ at least 1,200 people at the campus, which is to be a hub for its Global Technology & Operations unit.
Highwoods expects to begin construction on the office park by the end of the month. The first phase includes two seven-story buildings that will occupy 26.5 acres. Fritsch said those buildings, each containing 213,500 square feet, are to be completed by the first half of 2015. A second phase will involve a third office building of similar size.
In terms of investment dollars, the MetLife campus is among the five largest deals in Highwoods’ 35-year history, Fritsch said in an interview.
The deal further deepens Highwoods’ relationship with MetLife. The insurer was Highwoods’ eighth-largest tenant at the end of last year, leasing nearly 300,000 square feet of space from the Raleigh real estate investment trust. Highwoods also previously constructed a building for MetLife in Tampa, Fla.
“We’re flattered, obviously, that they continue to show confidence in us to be their landlord,” Fritsch said. “We also think this is one of the best sites in Wake County.”
Highwoods acquired the land off Weston Parkway in northern Cary in 1997, and the company has had numerous chances over the years to sell it or carve it up and develop it in pieces.
“We’ve long felt that it’s an ideal regional headquarters location,” Fritsch said. “We’ve kind of held off until the right opportunity came along, and MetLife came knocking, and we felt it was the right match.”
With very little speculative office construction taking place, Highwoods and other office landlords have been competing for the few build-to-suit projects that are moving forward.
Including MetLife, Highwoods now has $238 million in active development projects.
The company is building a 203,000-square-foot headquarters for LifePoint Hospitals in Nashville and a new headquarters for International Paper in Memphis that will be under 300,000 square feet.
All told, Highwoods now has just under a million square feet of office space under development that is 96 percent preleased.
MetLife has already signed a long-term lease for the space in the Cary buildings.
In the meantime, the insurer is leasing office space in Durham and elsewhere as it staffs up and waits for its new headquarters to be built.